BALTIMORE -- The maturity of Xander Bogaerts, his evident comfort in the spotlight, is so compelling that it is sometimes easy to forget how quickly his baseball career is taking shape. But as he prepared for his first Opening Day in the big leagues, the 21-year-old remained mindful of his path.
"Coming in on the bus [for Sunday's workout at Camden Yards] I was thinking that last year I opened at Double-A and this year I'm in the big leagues," said Bogaerts. "That's really special right there, from Double-A to the big leagues in one year, Opening Day, that's pretty good."
There are times when players can enjoy relative anonymity in their formative days as everyday big leaguers. Often, the Red Sox will seek to hide rookies at the bottom of the order to underscore the notion that they are something other than lineup pillars, that the load they must shoulder is limited.
But there will be no hiding Bogaerts, not after what the world saw last October, when he hit .296 with a .412 OBP and .481 slugging mark against elite starting pitching in the postseason, joining David Ortiz as the only member of the lineup to create consistent life in the offense. He will hit seventh, perhaps sixth, in many of the team's games out of the gate.
Teams will not go into series thinking they can overlook the player who will be making his first Opening Days start. In advance scouting meetings, they will have to account for him as a potential game-changer.
That's a considerable adjustment, and a very different responsibility even than the one that Bogaerts faced last October.
"One of the first things that comes to mind is that when you look back to 2007, which is my first reference point, through 2010, and then again last year, the [Red Sox] teams that have had the most success have been those veteran teams that have integrated and injected those rookies, first-year players that are extremely talented, and have given a burst of energy late in the season. We also know that the following year, when that young player is now being called upon to start from Opening Day through the course of the season, getting on that roll of that first-year player who is called up midseason is a little bit more difficult," Red Sox manager John Farrell said on WEEI's "Down on the Farm." "A really talented player at Triple-A is going to get on a roll offensively, swinging the bat with much more confidence, maybe because he's not facing the caliber of pitching nightly that he's facing at the big league level.
"The biggest challenge, to me, is that April presents a big challenge for a young player because now they're going up against frontline pitching every night, maybe for the first time in their career, compounded by the expectation of getting out of the gate early and being successful as a team. So you look at the everyday player maybe through a little bit of a different viewpoint than when they come up on a hot streak and a really confident place in mind, so patience early in the season has really got to be the storyline."
That can be easier said than done, particularly on a team that set the bar so high last year -- admittedly, with Bogaerts doing a not-inconsiderable amount of the bar-setting. The Red Sox are coming off a title, and it can be daunting to be asked to perform at a level that lives up to such a lofty standard as a first year everyday player, regardless of how considerable a player's talents may be.
The year after the Red Sox' last title offers a relevant case in point. After the title run of 2007, the team committed to three young players out of the gate for the first time in their careers.
The enormously gifted trio of Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester opened the year on the big league roster, with Ellsbury entrusted with everyday responsibilities for the first time and Buchholz and Lester both slotted into the rotation out of the gate. At the time, conventional wisdom held that Buchholz was the best of the three prospects, followed closely by Ellsbury with Lester as the clear third-best player in that group.
Ellsbury started well in 2008 (.280 average, .396 OBP in April), but saw his performance dip slightly in May and then significantly in June and July, when he had a sub-.275 OBP. And in the postseason, he was displaced as an everyday center fielder by Coco Crisp due to his struggles.
Buchholz actually started well (3.71 ERA in his first six starts) but fell apart in May en route to an eventual 6.75 ERA and a season-ending demotion to Double-A.
Lester started in respectable fashion but then emerged as a dominant lynchpin of the rotation by late-April.
The projections and talent didn't necessarily align with the results.
"The one thing that comes to mind with all three guys is that there's going to be paths, or there's going to be a transition to becoming a good major league player or a frontline major league starter, but they're going to take twists and turns along the way," said Farrell. "You can map out all these projections and say, OK, this is when we can really count on this player to give us this type of production. That all sounds well and good, but when the rubber hits the road, there are going to be some things that come up that we have no idea and we can't plan for.
"To believe in our players is first and foremost. We have talented players. But we have to be open-minded and aware that some of these trajectories to everyday play and production are not always going to meet what our projections or expectations are."
Buchholz and Lester understand that, at some point, Bogaerts will face a struggle unlike any other that he's endured in his professional career. But it is also telling that both pitchers view the prodigal shortstop as being in a different place in his career than they were as they tried to solidify their places in a big league rotation.
"As a young guy, you're pulled in so many different directions," said Lester. "You can veer off that path of whatever has made you you pretty quickly. You fall into what people start saying about you, you start reading, you start paying attention to the TV.
"[But] you have a guy like [Dustin Pedroia] who can pull those reins back," added Lester. "[And] Bogey's pretty confident as it is. We got to see a lot of Bogey last year. That helped us. We know his comfort level. We know what to expect from him. So I think a lot of those question marks are answered for us coming into camp. He's one of the most humble but self-confident guys I've been around. You know what you're going to get from him."
There are questions about Bogaerts, of course. But for the veterans who can relate to the role he's being asked to play this year, those are little different than the ones that might face more veteran performers, based on what they know of Bogaerts' talent and makeup.
"I think he's more mature than I was as young as he is," said Buchholz. "It's pretty cool to see that part of the game. Everyone knows how good he can be."
But Bogaerts might not realize that seemingly limitless potential straight out of the gate. As excited as the Red Sox are about what he ultimately will provide them with, they remain mindful that the first games of the year may not offer the full measure of who he will become.
Even for Bogaerts, who seemed so comfortable on the game's biggest stage, growing pains could occur. But for the team, there remains immense confidence in what their youngest Opening Day starter in decades is ultimately capable of offering in the coming season.
"We have to remain patient," said Farrell. "We can't get down on the player just because of what his bottom line production is, because in time they're going to evolve and be the player and performer that the evaluations have been since they signed a pro contract, and we feel like we're in that same mode now."